In God’s Land: Triumph of faith over facts

Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s In God’s Land is a dystopian tale set in Tamilnadu, South India. While it brings together history, discourse of development and progress, there is an underlying tale that is not visible, even after watching the film in its entirety. This is one of the “land grab mafia” involving the local Vanamamalai Temple authorities, the Tamilnadu government and of course, the Non-resident Indian investors in the U.S. I watched this movie last week, at Virginia Tech, where Kumar came over to screen his film and talk to students and faculty who were interested in the ideas that he had to share, through this film. The film is based on the village near Tirunalveli district and is a tale that made me question the untold stories of ‘development’ that one reads or often, does not read about.

Pankaj Rishi Kumar with Dr. Peter Schmitthenner, Dept. of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech
Pankaj Rishi Kumar with Dr. Peter Schmitthenner, Dept. of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech

The dominant narrative in In God’s Land is about the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) that is due to come up in the village, that’d occupy over 2500 acres of land. “I was passing by this area, when I saw this sign for the SEZ, and was intrigued. That is what started the project,” pointed out Kumar, about the serendipitous way in which he came across the project and hence his film. The villagers in the film are active participants and the story is narrated partly from their perspective, with Tamil as the language of the film. The film is very visual, and the sound of the local speaking in local Tamil dialect brought back memories of my own friends, who speak with a tone and speed that is all too befuddling, even for a Kannada speaker, such as me. The villagers also seem to be ones with agency and the will to defy the local authorities, mainly the temple chiefs who seemed to have appropriated the village property. A court case against the temple brought by the villagers decades ago is still pending, but it seems to have created animosity and also downright ‘oppression’ of villagers by the temple authorities. One of the village chief speaks of being physically harassed and beaten up for standing up against the temple’s illegitimate takeover. To complicate matters further, the temple authorities sell the land to the government, to develop the SEZ and this creates a situation, where their arable agricultural land is classified as “dry land,” up for “development.” And this is just one of the several absurdities in this situation that the film showcases.

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The tensions between the villagers and temple are not only about the project, but involve the caste-dynamics, going back to centuries, involving economic issues of patronage and landless agricultural farmers. The villagers invent a new god, Sudalai Swami to cater to their spiritual needs, once they are barred from entering the big temple. They find creative ways to battle this imbalance of power. While the local priest couches his move to sell the village land in the notion of “doing good for the community and their welfare,” it seems a bit of a stretch to imagine how dispossessing hundreds of families and taking away their livelihood would constitute “welfare.” The landless farmers, who for decades have paid rent to farm on this land, are not technically without this piece of land, that sustains not only their lives, but also gives them a sense of purpose and agency- as the film demonstrates. There is a deep-rooted love of the land among these people, one that defies rationality. This seemed to be an attachment that is not only emotional, but partly mythical, given the strange way in which the land was originally handed over to them by the local ruler – the Nizam, more than a hundred years ago.

Finally, this film is also a call for examining the politics of development, as it stands today. As Arturo Escobar, the Colombian Post-development scholar and thinker would say, we need “undevelopment” rather than development, if we are to look out for the interests of these people. If I am sounding too Marxist for your taste, I suggest watching the film and also reading a bit of Escobar. A good reality check for those who are enamored of the development discourse, and see it as a totally necessary and not contingent fact of life. While not aiming to be an “activist” film, the film does raise some important questions that everyone involved should think through. While development does call for certain sacrifices on everyone’s part, the bigger question that one should ask, and I think Kumar is hinting at this is: Do we need this sort of development at all? And finally, who gains and who loses? Is all of it worth it, in the end?

The resilience of the landless farmers is startling, so is their humanity. Their collective will and character seems to shine through in the film, which, in an unexpected way makes them the heroes of the film. Between giving up hope, fighting the system and keeping their faith in a god they invented, the film shows them for what they are: Human, all too human.

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